Author: Hamid Sulaiman (translated from French by Francesca Barrie)
Publish Date: July 2018 (original 2016)
Publisher: Interlink Books (imprint of Interlink Publishing Group)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1623719951
Author website: https://www.hamidsulaiman.com/
By Aaradhana Natarajan
I first came across Freedom Hospital: A Syrian Story when I asked a librarian to recommend graphic novels a medical student should read. Hamid Sulaiman’s black-and-white book was one of the small stack that I ended up leaving with. It was also the heaviest by far, dealing with the devastation of the Syrian civil war and the danger in parallel efforts to document it. The story begins and ends in the springtime, spread over an unspecified year at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Bashar al-Assad is still in power, pro-democracy protestors are singing their patriotism in the streets and, close to the Turkish border, a pharmacist named Yasmine is trying to realize her late father’s dream: opening a hospital that provides care for people who cannot access it, regardless of their faith or political faction. Despite repeat bombings, raids, and losses both personal and financial, Yasmine continues to rebuild, determined to live up to the ideals her father imparted and to help the civilians and soldiers alike who find themselves caught between the economic precarity and infrastructure losses of war.
The story begins with Sophie, a journalist who has temporarily returned from France to create a record of the clandestine hospital her old friend Yasmine has been running out of a converted restaurant. Throughout, the visuals linger like a camera lens. The fast-paced conversation and perspective changes as the earliest pages give way to whole sequences focused on elaborating a single action or moment in time – such as a patient’s daily prayer, another’s return to consciousness, or another still’s considered recollection of the violence that brought him to the hospital’s doorstep. The reader is thus encouraged to pause, linger and consider alongside the characters.
I thought it was interesting how Sulaiman focused on the interiority of the providers and those whose injuries effectively made them inpatients. We do not see much of Freedom Hospital’s day-to-day, short-term stays or people coming in for minor cuts or scrapes. While the story doesn’t really provide a lot of insight into the operational side of things, there is a strong focus on the characters, on the meaning of care in the middle of conflict, and the ways relationships help people make meaning in the midst of struggle.
Due consideration is given to each of the personnel and patients at the hospital, and the tragedies that shroud them. For example, Zahabiah works as the compound’s cook and dreams of studying at university. Her boyfriend, Haval, is coping with his OCD by wearing a gas mask around the building. Drs. Fawaz and Yazan help pharmacist Yasmine with the procedural side of their patients’ care. Elias, an émigré, lost an eye to torture and his dignity to armed threats. Walid, with his combat injuries and furiously reactionary views – views which are repeatedly challenged by the others and their experiences as members of ethnic and religious minorities within Syria. And mysterious Salem, who lost his memory to a bullet. Each of them has different motivations and hidden histories, but have found themselves thrown together by the circumstances behind their injuries. There is a strong emphasis on shared humanity – we get long sequences of the characters playing soccer, romancing beloveds, cracking morbid jokes about their grim circumstances, and otherwise creating quiet companionship amidst the ever-present threat of bombings, military raids and death.
I was reminded of Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet’s “On Living”, and this stanza in particular:
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery –
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it is impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told
The book opens at the border between Syria and Turkey, where spring is in full bloom and Sophie and Yasmine await a ride to the hospital. But the open white expanse of those backgrounds quickly give way to an almost claustrophobic pitch black as they travel towards their destination. The inks evoke a film-noir-like tension even as the conversations remain mostly lighthearted, as if the characters are attempting to keep the encroaching shadows of the ongoing conflict, its vicious sectarian violence, and their individual moral tumult in abeyance through their brightly lit expressions and word balloons.
There are further pitch-black backgrounds in the book, but they seem largely to be focused on poor Dr. Yazan – who is one of the hospital’s main clinicians and tasked with delivering bad prognosis and worse news to patients and colleagues alike – and Elijah, around whom the shadows seem meant to reinforce the isolation and despair of his immediate past. We feel for the patients, for the staff, and for everyone’s anxiety around the new configuration their futures have taken now that their bodies and their freedoms have become debilitated.
Not all the darkness is dire, though – moments of quiet, tender intimacy between the staff are also shrouded in shadow, but the bodies within them are drawn with soft curves, their limbs and expressions of gentle ease almost caressed by the ink around them. The creases of the sheets are drawn as if radiant light or lightning accompanied these moments. If I had to pick a cinematic comparison, it would be the French New Wave. Ambiguity, playing with lighting, a focus on interactions and expressions. A French aesthetic influence is also found in more direct references to Matisse and modernism.
I’ll reiterate here that Freedom Hospital is at times bleak, often devastating to read. There’s an ongoing death tally at the top left of some pages but it is out of the way of the main panels and seemingly background to the main story. The positioning almost makes it feel like a voiceover, demarcating time and punctuating pages in this monochromatic graphic novel. And graphic it is, in every sense of the word – multiple pages are dedicated to a bloody—though still inked in black and white—field amputation, where a man’s bullet-shattered leg is sawed off and cauterized with hot oil.
Another page depicts the wounded body of a child in three close-up panels, each with increasingly heart-rending dialogue.
Another, women crying out for somebody to intervene, to save them and their families while helicopters drop bombs from above.
And still another spread gives voice to men who can’t find their children; men who’ve lost their homes, and their hopes for the future. The perspectives are deliberate and carefully penned, the dispossessed drawn like anguished wraiths, like ghosts amidst a stark, shell-shocked landscape – their furious, feeling words transmitted over the internet are what place them clearly in the war-devastated world of the living.
There are no wraiths here, but there are many of the unquiet demises and trenchant traumas that give rise to such stories – and haunt those who survive. While the palette and art-style keep it from being too gore-heavy, Sulaiman’s panels nonetheless leave a mark. Freedom Hospital is a personal story, one he penned “to reflect the situation as I see it, not to explain it” (from post-script). As such, he blends facts into this fiction, borrowing from the lived experiences of his friends, acquaintances and own past to render a haunting portrait of a hospital struggling to provide care for marginalized and maimed people during a period of unimaginable violence.
Aaradhana Natarajan is currently a student at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. She is interested in medical history, health policy, science communications, and the ways different experiences of embodiment are represented in written and visual mediums. You can find her other reviews on the Ripple Magazine, Rutgers University Libraries and the East Coast Asian American Students Union websites, while her science writing can be found on Medium @aaradhana.natarajan